By Susan Sontag
28 October, 2003
Johannes Rau, Minister of the Interior Otto Schily, State Minister of
Culture Christina Weiss, the Lord Mayor of Frankfurt Petra Roth, Vice-President
of the Bundestag Antje Vollmer, your excellencies, other distinguished
guests, honored colleagues, friends ... among them, dear Ivan Nagel:
To speak in the
Paulskirche, before this audience, to receive the prize awarded in the
last fifty-three years by the German Book Trade to so many writers,
thinkers, and exemplary public figures whom I admire --- to speak in
this history-charged place and on this occasion, is a humbling and inspiring
experience. I can only the more regret the deliberate absence of the
American ambassador, Mr. Daniel Coats, whose immediate refusal, in June,
of the invitation from the Booksellers Association, when this year's
Friedenspreis was announced, to attend our gathering here today, shows
he is more interested in affirming the ideological stance and the rancorous
reactiveness of the Bush administration than he is, by fulfilling a
normal diplomatic duty, in representing the interests and reputation
of his --- and my --- country.
has chosen not to be here, I assume, because of criticisms I have voiced,
in newspaper and television interviews and in brief magazine articles,
of the new radical bent of American foreign policy, as exemplified by
the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He should be here, I think, because
a citizen of the country he represents in Germany has been honored with
an important German prize.
An American ambassador
has the duty to represent his country, all of it. I, of course, do not
represent America, not even that substantial minority that does not
support the imperial program of Mr. Bush and his advisors. I like to
think I do not represent anything but literature, a certain idea of
literature, and conscience, a certain idea of conscience or duty. But,
mindful of the citation for this prize from a major European country,
which mentions my role as an "intellectual ambassador" between
the two continents (ambassador, needless to say, in the weakest, merely
metaphorical sense), I cannot resist offering a few thoughts about the
renowned gap between Europe and the United States, which my interests
and enthusiasms purportedly bridge.
First, is it a gap
--- which continues to be bridged? Or is it not also a conflict? Irate,
dismissive statements about Europe, certain European countries, are
now the common coin of American political rhetoric; and here, at least
in the rich countries on the western side of the continent, anti-American
sentiments are more common, more audible, more intemperate than ever.
What is this conflict? Does it have deep roots? I think it does.
There has always
been a latent antagonism between Europe and America, one at least as
complex and ambivalent as that between parent and child. America is
a neo-European country and, until the last few decades, was largely
populated by European peoples. And yet it is always the differences
between Europe and America that have struck the most perceptive European
observers: Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the young nation in 1831
and returned to France to write Democracy in America, still, some hundred
and seventy years later, the best book about my country, and D.H. Lawrence,
who, eighty years ago, published the most interesting book ever written
about American culture, his influential, exasperating Studies in Classic
American Literature, both understood that America, the child of Europe,
was becoming, or had become, the antithesis of Europe.
Rome and Athens.
Mars and Venus. The authors of recent popular tracts promoting the idea
of an inevitable clash of interests and values between Europe and America
did not invent these antitheses. Foreigners brooded over them --- and
they provide the palette, the recurrent melody, in much of American
literature throughout the 19th century, from James Fenimore Cooper and
Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, Henry James, William Dean Howells,
and Mark Twain. American innocence and European sophistication; American
pragmatism and European intellectualizing; American energy and European
world-weariness; American naïveté and European cynicism;
American goodheartedness and European malice; American moralism and
the European arts of compromise --- you know the tunes.
You can choreograph
them differently; indeed, they have been danced with every kind of evaluation
or tilt for two tumultuous centuries. Europhiles can use the venerable
antitheses to identify America with commerce-driven barbarism and Europe
with high culture, while the Europhobes draw on a ready-made view in
which America stands for idealism and openness and democracy and Europe
a debilitating, snobbish refinement. Tocqueville and Lawrence observed
something fiercer: not just a declaration of independence from Europe,
and European values, but a steady undermining, an assassination of European
values and European power. "You can never have a new thing without
breaking an old," Lawrence wrote. "Europe happened to be the
old thing. America should be the new thing. The new thing is the death
of the old." America, Lawrence divined, was on a Europe-destroying
mission, using democracy --- particularly cultural democracy, democracy
of manners --- as an instrument. And when that task is accomplished,
he went on, America might well turn from democracy to something else.
(What that might be is, perhaps, emerging now.)
Bear with me if
my references have been exclusively literary. After all, one function
of literature --- of important literature, of necessary literature ---
is to be prophetic. What we have here, writ large, is the perennial
literary --- or cultural --- quarrel: between the ancients and the moderns.
The past is (or
was) Europe, and America was founded on the idea of breaking with the
past, which is viewed as encumbering, stultifying, and --- in its forms
of deference and precedence, its standards of what is superior and what
is best --- fundamentally undemocratic, or "elitist," the
reigning current synonym. Those who speak for a triumphal America continue
to intimate that American democracy implies repudiating Europe, and,
yes, embracing a certain liberating, salutary barbarism. If, today,
Europe is regarded by most Americans as more socialist than elitist,
that still makes Europe, by American standards, a retrograde continent,
obstinately attached to old standards: the welfare state. "Make
it new" is not only a slogan for culture; it describes an ever-advancing,
world-encompassing economic machine.
However, if necessary,
even the "old" can be rebaptized as the "new."
It is not a coincidence
that the strong-minded American Secretary of Defense tried to drive
a wedge within Europe --- distinguishing unforgettably between an "old"
Europe (bad) and a "new" Europe (good). How did Germany, France,
and Belgium come to be consigned to "old" Europe, while Spain,
Italy, Poland, Ukraine, The Netherlands, Hungary, the Czech Republic,
and Bulgaria find themselves part of "new" Europe? Answer:
to support the United States in its present extensions of political
and military power is, by definition, to pass into the more desirable
category of the "new." Whoever is with us is "new."
All modern wars,
even when their aims are the traditional ones, such as territorial aggrandizement
or the acquisition of scarce resources, are cast as clashes of civilizations
--- culture wars --- with each side claiming the high ground, and characterizing
the other as barbaric. The enemy is invariably a threat to "our
way of life," an infidel, a desecrator, a polluter, a defiler of
higher or better values. The current war against the very real threat
posed by militant Islamic fundamentalism is a particularly clear example.
What is worth remarking is that a milder version of the same terms of
disparagement underlies the antagonism between Europe and America. It
should also be remembered that, historically, the most virulent anti-American
rhetoric ever heard in Europe --- consisting essentially in the charge
that Americans are barbarians --- came not from the so-called left but
from the extreme right. Both Hitler and Franco repeatedly inveighed
against an America (and a world Jewry) engaged in polluting European
civilization with its base, business values.
Of course, much
of European public opinion continues to admire American energy, the
American version of "the modern." And, to be sure, there have
always been American fellow-travelers of the European cultural ideals
(one stands here before you), who find in the old arts of Europe correction
and a liberation from the strenuous mercantilist biases of American
culture. And there have always been the counterparts of such Americans
on the European side: Europeans who are fascinated, enthralled, profoundly
attracted to the United States, precisely because of its difference
What the Americans
see is almost the reverse of the Europhile cliché: they see themselves
defending civilization. The barbarian hordes are no longer outside the
gates. They are within, in every prosperous city, plotting havoc. The
"chocolate-producing" countries (France, Germany, Belgium)
will have to stand aside, while a country with "will" ---
and God on its side --- pursues the battle against terrorism (now conflated
with barbarism). According to Secretary of State Powell, it is ridiculous
for old Europe (sometimes it seems only France is meant) to aspire to
play a role in governing or administering the territories won by the
coalition of the conqueror. It has neither the military resources nor
the taste for violence nor the support of its cosseted, all-too-pacific
populations. And the Americans have it right. Europeans are not in an
evangelical --- or a bellicose --- mood.
I have to pinch myself to be sure I am not dreaming: that what many
people in my own country now hold against Germany, which wreaked such
horrors on the world for nearly a century --- the new "German problem,"
as it were --- is that Germans are repelled by war; that much of German
public opinion is now virtually ... pacifist!
Were America and
Europe never partners, never friends? Of course. But perhaps it is true
that the periods of unity --- of common feeling ----have been exceptions,
rather than the rule. One such time was from the Second World War through
the early Cold War, when Europeans were profoundly grateful for America's
intervention, succor, and support. Americans are comfortable seeing
themselves in the role of Europe's savior. But then, America will expect
the Europeans to be forever grateful, which is not what Europeans are
feeling right now.
Europe's point of view, America seems bent on squandering the admiration
--- and gratitude --- felt by most Europeans. The immense sympathy for
the United States in the aftermath of the attack on September 11, 2001
was genuine. (I can testify to its resounding ardor and sincerity in
Germany; I was in Berlin at the time.) But what has followed is an increasing
estrangement on both sides. The citizens of the richest and most powerful
nation in history have to know that America is loved, and envied ...
and resented. More than a few who travel abroad know that Americans
are regarded as crude, boorish, uncultivated by many Europeans, and
don't hesitate to match these expectations with behavior that suggests
the ressentiment of the ex-colonials. And some of the cultivated Europeans
who seem most to enjoy visiting or living in the United States attribute
to it, condescendingly, the liberating ambiance of a colony where one
can throw off the restrictions and high-culture burdens of "back
home." I recall being told by a German film-maker, living at the
time in San Francisco, that he loved being in the States "because
you don't have any culture here." For more than a few Europeans,
including, it should be mentioned, D.H. Lawrence ("there the life
comes up from the roots, crude but vital," he wrote to a friend
in 1915, when he was making plans to live in America), America was the
great escape. And vice versa: Europe was the great escape for generations
of Americans seeking "culture." Of course, I am speaking only
of minorities here, minorities of the privileged.
So America now sees
itself as the defender of civilization and Europe's savior, and wonders
why Europeans don't get the point; and Europeans see America as a reckless
warrior state --- a description that the Americans return by seeing
Europe as the enemy of America: only pretending, so runs rhetoric heard
increasingly in the United States, to be pacifist, in order to contribute
to the weakening of American power. France in particular is thought
to be scheming to become America's equal, even its superior, in shaping
world affairs --- "Operation America Must Fail" is the name
invented by a columnist in the New York Times to describe the French
drive toward dominance --- instead of realizing that an American defeat
in Iraq will encourage "radical Muslim groups --- from Baghdad
to the Muslim slums of Paris" to pursue their jihad against tolerance
It is hard for people
not to see the world in polarizing terms ("them" and us")
and these terms have in the past strengthened the isolationist theme
in American foreign policy as much as they now strengthen the imperialist
theme. Americans have got used to thinking of the world in terms of
enemies. Enemies are somewhere else, as the fighting is almost always
"over there," with Islamic fundamentalism now replacing Russian
and Chinese communism as the implacable, furtive menace to "our
way of life." And terrorist is a more flexible word than communist.
It can unify a larger number of quite different struggles and interests.
What this may mean is that the war will be endless --- since there will
always be some terrorism (as there will always be poverty and cancer);
that is, there will always be asymmetrical conflicts in which the weaker
side uses that form of violence, which usually targets civilians. American
rhetoric, if not the popular mood, would support this unhappy prospect,
for the struggle for righteousness never ends.
It is the genius
of the United States, a profoundly conservative country in ways that
Europeans find difficult to fathom, to have devised a form of conservative
thinking that celebrates the new rather than the old. But this is also
to say, that in the very ways in which the United States seems extremely
conservative - for example, the extraordinary power of the consensus
and the passivity and conformism of public opinion (as Tocqueville remarked
in 1831) and the media it is also radical, even revolutionary,
in ways that Europeans find equally difficult to fathom.
Part of the puzzle,
surely, lies in the disconnect between official rhetoric and lived realities.
Americans are constantly extolling "traditions"; litanies
to family values are at the center of every politician's discourse.
And yet the culture of America is extremely corrosive of family life,
indeed of all traditions except those redefined as "identities"
that can be accepted as part of larger patterns of distinctiveness,
cooperation, and openness to innovation.
Perhaps the most
important source of the new (and not so new) American radicalism is
what used to be viewed as a source of conservative values: namely, religion.
Many commentators have noted that perhaps the biggest difference between
the United States and most European countries (old as well as new according
to current American distinction) is that in the United States religion
still plays a central role in society and public language. But this
is religion American style: more the idea of religion than religion
True, when, during
George Bush's run for president in 2000, a journalist was inspired to
ask the candidate to name his "favorite philosopher," the
well-received answer --- one that would make a candidate for high office
from any centrist party here in any European country a laughing stock
--- was "Jesus Christ." But, of course, Bush didn't mean,
and was not understood to mean, that, if elected, his administration
would actually feel bound by any of the precepts or social programs
expounded by Jesus.
The United States
is a generically religious society. That is, in the United States it's
not important which religion you adhere to, as long as you have one.
To have a ruling religion, even a theocracy, that would be just Christian
(or a particular Christian denomination) would be impossible. Religion
in America must be a matter of choice. This modern, relatively contentless
idea of religion, constructed along the lines of consumerist choice,
is the basis of American conformism, self-righteousness, and moralism
(which Europeans often mistake, condescendingly, for Puritanism). Whatever
historic faiths the different American religious entities purport to
represent, they all preach something similar: reform of personal behavior,
the value of success, community cooperativeness, tolerance of other's
choices. (All virtues that further and smooth the functioning of consumer
capitalism.) The very fact of being religious ensures respectability,
promotes order, and gives the guarantee of virtuous intentions to the
mission of the United States to lead the world.
What is being spread
--- whether it is called democracy, or freedom, or civilization ---
is part of a work in progress, as well as the essence of progress itself.
Nowhere in the world does the Enlightenment dream of progress have such
a fertile setting as it does in America.
Are we then really
so separate? How odd that, at a moment when Europe and America have
never been so similar culturally, there has never been such a great
Still, for all the
similarities in the daily lives of citizens in rich European countries
and the daily lives of Americans, the gap between the European and the
American experience is a genuine one, founded on important differences
of history, of notions of the role of culture, of real and imagined
memories. The antagonism --- for there is antagonism --- is not to be
resolved in the immediate future, for all the good will of many people
on both sides of the Atlantic. And yet one can only deplore those who
want to maximize those differences, when we do have so much in common.
The dominance of
America is a fact. But America, as the present administration is starting
to see, cannot do everything alone. The future of our world --- the
world we share --- is syncretistic, impure. We are not shut off from
each other. More and more, we leak into each other.
In the end, the
model for whatever understanding ---conciliation --- we might reach
lies in thinking more about that venerable opposition, "old"
and "new." The opposition between "civilization"
and "barbarism" is essentially stipulatory; it is corrupting
to think about and pontificate about --- however much it may reflect
certain undeniable realities. But the opposition of "old"
and "new" is genuine, ineradicable, at the center of what
we understand to be experience itself.
and "new" are the perennial poles of all feeling and sense
of orientation in the world. We cannot do without the old, because in
what is old is invested all our past, our wisdom, our memories, our
sadness, our sense of realism. We cannot do without faith in the new,
because in what is new is invested all our energy, our capacity for
optimism, our blind biological yearning, our ability to forget --- the
healing ability that makes reconciliation possible.
The inner life tends
to mistrust the new. A strongly developed inner life will be particularly
resistant to the new. We are told we must choose --- the old or the
new. In fact, we must choose both. What is a life if not a series of
negotiations between the old and the new? It seems to me that one should
always be seeking to talk oneself out of these stark oppositions.
Old versus new,
nature versus culture --- perhaps it is inevitable that the great myths
of our cultural life be played out as geography, not only as history.
Still, they are myths, clichés, stereotypes, no more; the realities
are much more complex.
A good deal of my
life has been devoted to trying to demystify ways of thinking that polarize
and oppose. Translated into politics, this means favoring what is pluralistic
and secular. Like some Americans and many Europeans, I would far prefer
to live in a multilateral world --- a world not dominated by any one
country (including my own). I could express my support, in a century
that already promises to be another century of extremes, of horrors,
for a whole panoply of meliorist principles --- in particular, for what
Virginia Woolf calls "the melancholy virtue of tolerance."
Let me rather speak
first of all as a writer, as a champion of the enterprise of literature,
for therein lies the only authority I have.
The writer in me
distrusts the good citizen, the "intellectual ambassador,"
the human rights activist --- those roles which are mentioned in the
citation for this prize, much as I am committed to them. The writer
is more skeptical, more self-doubting, than the person who tries to
do (and to support) the right thing.
One task of literature
is to formulate questions and construct counter-statements to the reigning
pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward
contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might
be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive
and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.
Writers can do something
to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference ---
for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature
offers not only myths but counter-myths, just as life offers counter-experiences
--- experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt,
A writer, I think,
is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand,
take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of;
and not be corrupted --- made cynical, superficial --- by this understanding.
Literature can tell
us what the world is like.
Literature can give
standards and pass on deep knowledge, incarnated in language, in narrative.
Literature can train,
and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.
Who would we be
if we could not sympathize with those who are not us or ours? Who would
we be if we could not forget ourselves, at least some of the time? Who
would we be if we could not learn? Forgive? Become something other than
Escaping the prison
of national vanity
On the occasion
of receiving this glorious prize, this glorious German prize, let me
tell you something of my own trajectory.
I was born, a third-generation
American of Polish and Lithuanian Jewish descent, two weeks before Hitler
came to power. I grew up in the American provinces (Arizona and California),
far from Germany, and yet my entire childhood was haunted by Germany,
by the monstrousness of Germany, and by the German books and the German
music I loved, which set my standard for what is exalted and intense.
Even before Bach
and Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert and Brahms, there were a few German
books. I am thinking of a teacher in an elementary school in a small
town in southern Arizona, Mr. Starkie, who had awed his pupils by telling
us that he had fought with Pershing's army in Mexico against Pancho
Villa: this grizzled veteran of an earlier American imperialist venture
had, it seems, been touched --- in translation --- by the idealism of
German literature, and, having taken in my particular hunger for books,
loaned me his own copies of Werther and Immensee.
Soon after, in my
childhood orgy of reading, chance led me to other German books, including
Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," where I discovered dread and
injustice. And a few years later, when I was a high school student in
Los Angeles, I found all of Europe in a German novel. No book has been
more important in my life than The Magic Mountain --- whose subject
is, precisely, the clash of ideals at the heart of European civilization.
And so on, through a long life that has been steeped in German high
culture. Indeed, after the books and the music, which were, given the
cultural desert in which I lived, virtually clandestine experiences,
came real experiences. For I am also a late beneficiary of the German
cultural diaspora, having had the great good fortune of knowing well
some of the incomparably brilliant Hitler refugees, those writers and
artists and musicians and scholars that America received in the 1930s
and who so enriched the country, particularly its universities. Let
me name two I was privileged to count as friends when I was in my late
teens and early twenties, Hans Gerth and Herbert Marcuse; those with
whom I studied at the University of Chicago and at Harvard, Christian
Mackauer and Paul Tillich and Peter Heinrich von Blanckenhagen, and
in private seminars, Aron Gurwitsch and Nahum Glatzer; and Hannah Arendt,
whom I knew after I moved to New York in my mid-twenties --- so many
models of the serious, whose memory I would like to evoke here.
But I shall never
forget that my engagement with German culture, with German seriousness,
all started with obscure, eccentric Mr. Starkie (I don't think I ever
knew his first name), who was my teacher when I was ten, and whom I
never saw afterward.
And that brings
me to a story, with which I will conclude --- as seems fitting, since
I am neither primarily a cultural ambassador nor a fervent critic of
my own government (a task I perform as a good American citizen). I am
So, back to ten-year-old
me, who found some relief from the tiresome duties of being a child
by poring over Mr. Starkie's tattered volumes of Goethe and Storm. At
the time I am speaking of, 1943, I was aware that there was a prison
camp with thousands of German soldiers, Nazi soldiers as of course I
thought of them, in the northern part of the state, and, knowing I was
Jewish (if only nominally, my family having been completely secular
and assimilated for two generations; nominally, I knew, was enough for
Nazis), I was beset by a recurrent nightmare in which Nazi soldiers
had escaped from the prison and had made their way downstate to the
bungalow on the outskirts of the town where I lived with my mother and
sister, and were about to kill me.
Flash forward to
many years later, the 1970s, when my books started to be published by
Hanser Verlag, and I came to know the distinguished Fritz Arnold (he
had joined the firm in 1965), who was my editor at Hanser until his
death in February 1999.
One of the first
times we were together, Fritz said he wanted to tell me --- presuming,
I suppose, that this was a prerequisite to any friendship that might
arise between us --- what he had done during the war. I assured him
that he did not owe me any such explanation; but, of course, I was touched
by his bringing up the subject. I should add that Fritz Arnold was not
the only German of his generation (he was born in 1916) who, soon after
we met, insisted on telling me what he or she had done in Nazi times.
And not all of the stories were as innocent as what I was to hear from
Anyway, what Fritz
told me was that he had been a university student of literature and
art history, first in Munich, then in Cologne, when, at the start of
the war, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht with the rank of corporal.
His family was, of course, anything but pro-Nazi --- his father was
Karl Arnold, the legendary political cartoonist of Simplicissimus ---
but emigration seemed out of the question, and he accepted, with dread,
the call to military service, hoping neither to kill anyone nor to be
Fritz was one of
the lucky ones. Lucky, to have been stationed first in Rome (where he
refused his superior officer's invitation to be commissioned a lieutenant),
then in Tunis; lucky enough to have remained behind the lines and never
once to have fired a weapon; and finally, lucky, if that is the right
word, to have been taken prisoner by the Americans in 1943, to have
been transported by ship across the Atlantic with other captured German
soldiers to Norfolk, Virginia, and then taken by train across the continent
to spend the rest of the war in a prison camp in
Then I had the pleasure
of telling him, sighing with wonder, for I had already started to be
very fond of this man --- this was the beginning of a great friendship
as well as an intense professional relationship --- that while he was
a prisoner of war in northern Arizona, I was in the southern part of
the state, terrified of the Nazi soldiers who were there, here, and
from whom there would be no escape.
And then Fritz told
me that what got him through his nearly three years in the prison camp
in Arizona was that he was allowed access to books: he had spent those
years reading and rereading the English and American classics. And I
told him that what saved me as a schoolchild in Arizona, waiting to
grow up, waiting to escape into a larger reality, was reading books,
books in translation as well as those written in English.
To have access to
literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity,
of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of
imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter
a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.
Literature was freedom.
Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are
so strenuously challenged, literature is freedom.
by Susan Sontag
is researched, written and edited by Tom Engelhardt, a fellow at the
Nation Institute, for anyone in despair over post-September 11th US
mainstream media coverage of our world and ourselves.
© 2003 TomDispatch.com